Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Should Obama and Dobson Keep Jesus in the Closet?

One of the big unknowns of the 2008 presidential campaign was how, when, or if Christianity was going to come up as an object of controversy.

Whether most American voters, especially white voters, are eager to inject religion into the presidential campaign is an open question. The two main centers of Christian politics in the United States are the religious right and African-American churches. If religion does become more central to the campaign, voters might have to learn more about the religious right or African-American Christianity than they want to know.

But the parameters of religion as an issue might emerge in the current manuevering between Barack Obama and Dr. James Dobson of Focus on the Family. Initially, the question is about embracing diversity. Obama envisions a multi-cultural America in which many religions exist and everybody sees value in everybody else's religion or lack of religion.

He especially wants leaders on the religious right to acknowledge "the increasing diversity of America's population, the dangers of sectarianism have never been greater. Whatever we once were, we are no longer just a Christian nation; we are also a Jewish nation, a Muslim nation, a Buddhist nation, a Hindu nation, and a nation of nonbelievers."

And as an atheist, I appreciate the shout out to non-believers.

Obama also wants figures on the religious right to recognize the beauty, or at least the legitimacy, of various views among Christians as well.

Should we go with Leviticus, which suggests slavery is ok and that eating shellfish is abomination? How about Deuteronomy, which suggests stoning your child if he strays from the faith? Or should we just stick to the Sermon on the Mount - a passage that is so radical that it's doubtful that our own Defense Department would survive its application? So before we get carried away, let's read our bibles. Folks haven't been reading their bibles."

Personally, I agree with Leviticus about shellfish and avoid them at all cost.

To paraphrase a children's story, all this makes James Dobson "grim and grumpy," and he emphasizes the need for conservatives to fight for their views on abortion. If Dobson had been really expansive, he could have mentioned gay marriage here as well.

But does Obama really want people in the United States to take the Sermon on the Mount as a guide. That's because the radicalism of the Sermon on the Mount goes far beyond the Defense Department. It touches the economy, running for President, and managing religious empires as well. In fact, it's hard to see much about American life that isn't condemned by Jesus in one way or another.

Jesus is especially emphatic about condemning wealth. It's not just the camel getting through the eye of the needle. In the Luke version of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus proclaims:

Blessed be ye poor for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are ye that hunger now, for ye shall be filled. Blessed are ye that weep now: for ye shall laugh. But woe unto you that are rich! For ye have received your consolation. Woe unto you that are full! For ye shall hunger. Woe unto you that laugh now! For ye shall mourn and weep. Woe unto you, when all men shall speak well of you! For so did their fathers to the false prophets. (Luke 6:20-24—20).
What makes the wealthy condemnable isn't so much the money itself, but what money signifies to Jesus--fullness and satisfaction, laughter and happiness, friendship and popularity. Having riches represents the ability to buy things that make one full and it represents the social status that makes others "speak well of you." Generally speaking, wealth represents a promise that "this life" can be blessed. These are all things that Jesus condemns in no uncertain terms and he condemns them throughout the gospels of Matthew and Luke.

Needless to say, this kind of thought condemns people as popular, privileged, and "full" of themselves and this life as Barack Obama and James Dobson to the "woe" of eternal torment rather than the blessings reserved for the poor and suffering.

Conversely, Jesus values the poor, hungry, and grieving because their lives are saturated with suffering and bereft of human happiness. One of the striking dimensions of the biblical narrratives of Jesus is the intensity of his identification with the poor, suffering, sick, and tormented.

Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me. Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels: For I was an hungred, and ye gave me no meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me no drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me not in: naked, and ye clothed me not: sick, and in prison, and ye visited me not. Then shall they also answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, or athirst, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister unto thee? Then shall he answer them, saying, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me. And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal.

The poor, suffering, and persecuted are especially blessed and allowing them to suffer is exactly the same as allowing Jesus to suffer. Taking it upon yourself to relieve your suffering or take revenge is also forbidden. This is what I take to be the logic of Jesus' invocations against resisting evil, striking back at those who strike us, and hating our enemies.

Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloke also. And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain. Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away. Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you (Matthew 5: 38-44)
Resist not evil? The logic is there. Don't resist evil because suffering and persecution are blessed and it will ultimately be doubled blessed because they resemble the suffering of Jesus himself. This must be where Obama views the Sermon on the Mount as disallowing the Department of Defense. The invocation to "resist not evil" forbids defending oneself against Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, the Soviets, and the Nazis. If you should not defend yourself, why need a Defense Department?

But the injunction to "resist not evil" doesn't allow non-violent protest, bus boycotts, or other kinds of resistance to segregation either. Or escaping from slavery. From the perspective of "Resist not evil," Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King are just as wrong as Donald Rumsfeld and George W. Bush.

For that matter, it wouldn't allow resistance to abortion either.

As I read the Sermon on the Mount and Matthew and Luke, being a Christian means following Jesus on the road to suffering some form of perseution or martyrdom in the manner of the early saints. As a result, I'm not sure what specific meaning "biblical" Christianity can have in a society like American society that does not persecute people for Christian belief.

Likewise, much of what is involved with government can be summed up by the ideas of working to "resist evil" and helping people be as "blessed" as they can be in this life. These are both things that Jesus explicitly condemns. Perhaps government can legitimately give aid to the poor. Otherwise, it's hard not to think that those who are concerned with government either have to ignore the doctrine of Jesus or set themselves in opposition to Jesus.

Maybe Dobson and Obama should just think of keeping Jesus in the closet for the next five months.

1 comment:

David Wozney said...

Re: “... we are no longer just a Christian nation; ...

I wonder when does Obama believe you ever were “just a Christian nation” and when does Obama believe you stopped being “just a Christian nation”.

The “... government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion ...”, according to Article 11 of the Treaty of Peace and Friendship, signed at Tripoli on November 4, 1796, and passed by the United States Congress.

Article VI, Clause 2 of the U.S.A. Constitution states: “This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in Pursuance thereof; and all Treaties made, or which shall be made, under the Authority of the United States, shall be the supreme Law of the Land...”.